Entering the Flow

Next week, staff teams in Christian congregations will execute plans that have been weeks and months in the making.  Liturgies are designed, worship leaders are equipped, and choirs are rehearsed. It’s go time!

Team members will step into the “flow”.  The team will let go of planning activity and yield to normative behavioral practices.  They will handle volume and busyness with well-rehearsed scripts.

For some teams this flow state is almost mystical, a sign of the team’s effectiveness and highly collaborative relationships.  It matches the mystery of the season and team members feel blessed.

For others, the flow state highlights unaddressed team problems, magnifies unstated assumptions that aren’t mutually shared, and aggravates a sense of otherness. It is painful to be the outsider, or the one who can’t master the norms when the team is in flow.

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Recently, I was invited to observe a staff meeting in a vibrant, healthy congregation.  This team has been working well together for many years. Following is a description of their flow pattern.

It is Tuesday morning, ten minutes before the beginning of the team’s weekly meeting. A pastoral leader, with eighteen years tenure on the team, steps out of her office and into the hallway.  In pied piper fashion she issues the call, “It is time to think about gathering, friends!” She wanders into the church office and begins a conversation unrelated to the team gathering. There is a palpable shift in the atmosphere, but no one immediately changes gears.

About fifteen minutes later, that pastor and one other staff member casually stroll into the conference room and begin a conversation about a ministry event.  Gradually the full team assembles, each person joining in on a conversation already well in progress.   There is no official start to the meeting.

At some point, when everyone is in the room, another pastor asks the team to stop conversation and participate in a prayer experience.  The room quiets, the prayer is engaged, and then the coordinating activity resumes.

There is no agenda that an outsider can detect, and no official notes are taken, but work is definitely negotiated. The conversation subtly shifts focus, but never pauses for shifting gears. It is not clear who has the right to speak or when a decision has been definitively made, but the team seems to know.

Four members of the team are highly engaged in orchestrating the flow of conversation.  They speak over one another and gesticulate boldly. One member of the team is occasionally vocal and one is virtually silent. She doesn’t enter the conversation unless specifically addressed.

Forty-five minutes into the meeting, someone steps out of the room to handle a phone call and someone else leaves to attend to an emergent need in another part of the building.  Slowly, others begin to pack up their things and exit the room, without commentary or closure.  The two people who initially gathered in the space continue a spirited debate on yet another topic.  A new participant enters the room and the conversation shifts.

Clearly, we are now in the midst of a different meeting, but the moment when one meeting ends and the other meeting begins is not evident to me, the outsider.

Later that day I meet with one of the pastors and ask about the format of the meeting and how people know what needs to be discussed.  “We don’t feel the need for an agenda” he says, “but we do have a liturgy of work. There is a shared understanding about what needs to happen in that meeting, and it all gets done. What doesn’t get handled there gets handled informally later.”

I also meet with one of the more silent participants in the meeting.  She hates the weekly meeting. A self-described introvert, she cannot figure out how to enter into the conversation, or how to get her personal or ministry needs met. She breaks down in tears describing her frustration with the weekly experience.

What is the flow?

What is happening in the context of this meeting? It’s the same thing that happens in every team.  There are shared assumptions about how work is negotiated. Those shared assumptions form the basis of team culture.  Most teams are not fully conscious of what the assumptions actually are.  Team members simply learn how to do the dance. Some are more successful than others at negotiating the moves. Those who can’t figure out the norms are often labeled as the problem children on the team.

There are five major categories of negotiated work, around which team behavioral norms coalesce: decision-making, information sharing, conflict management, complaint-handling, and leadership.

The behavioral norms related to decision making define who gets to participate in decision making, whose opinions count, how unanimous we must all be in order to decide, how we disagree with one another about our decisions, how timely decision making is, and how a decision is owned once it has been made.

Information sharing norms dictate who has access to information, how it gets disseminated, who controls the flow, and how early or late information is shared.

In the area of conflict management, teams adopt a fundamental orientation about whether conflict is good or bad.  They develop norms around whether people disagree with one another openly and honestly, or in passive-defensive-aggressive ways.  Norms dictate which conflict management styles are employed, who is expected to yield to whom, and how apology is handled.

Every staff team must deal with complaints from the congregation and complaints within the team. What is the role of a team member in receiving a complaint, keeping the complainer happy, and defending other staff members? Do complaints stop action? Are people allowed to register complaints anonymously?

There are also normative behaviors related to leadership. Who has the right to lead? What difference does length of tenure, hierarchy or ordination make? Does leadership have to be formally authorized or is it informally shared?

These next few weeks will be revealing about the culture of your team. The demands of the season and its aftermath will bring normative behaviors into high relief. Unstated assumptions will rise to the surface. Pay attention and you may learn some interesting things about the culture and flow of your team.